If the Major League Baseball season gets canceled this year because of the dispute between players and owners over salaries, it will be a nightmare optics scenario for both sides.
But make no mistake about who picked the fight and where the blame will lie, regardless of any high-minded, pandemic-framed morality judgments.
It will be on the owners, who turned nearly a generation of relative labor harmony into a climate of mistrust just in the past few years by leveraging collective bargaining gains into salary suppression during a time of record MLB revenues and franchise values.
The resulting declines in average salaries in 2018 and 2019, after shockingly slow free agent markets, marked only the second and third years of decline in more than 50 years of union record keeping that didn’t involve shortened seasons or documented collusion — the first time in back-to-back seasons under any circumstances.
And whether you choose to attribute that to collusive conduct by teams or better evaluation analytics — former Cubs pitcher Brad Brach said last spring that multiple teams cited “algorithms” that winter when making identical offers — the impact was as clear.
A generation of players who had never experienced league-level labor strife — including some players who were born after the last labor stoppage — suddenly awoke to the harsher realities of union-management relations their predecessors lived, most recently in 1994-95.
“I was 2 years old. I didn’t comprehend everything,” Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant said when he consequently chose to step into a union leadership role on the team in 2018.
To be clear, the union has only itself to blame for signing a bad deal during the last round of CBA talks.
But the subsequent effects of “algorithms” and incentivized tanking that led to a squeeze on players during the sport’s good times awoke a sleeping giant of a union that already was gearing up for a fight over the 2022 CBA.
Fast-forward to this moment of national crisis.
Now the owners want a revenue-sharing plan (read: salary cap) to mitigate their losses during the bad times as they try to salvage a 2020 season during a pandemic?
That’s a significant context to remember in any rush to criticize players for not quickly accepting ownership’s terms for a restart and to express “disappointment” in them, as Gov. J.B. Pritzker did Tuesday — before walking his comments back on Wednesday.
And this is the even more significant context: Players and other essential, on-the-ground personnel will be asked to bear the lion’s share of health risks of going back to work in various parts of the country. Owners and top executives, in theory, might not be needed to leave their homes during an entire, abbreviated season.
It’s far from certain — and some experts say unlikely — that MLB will have even enough testing capacity to assure the level of safety protocol originally suggested as necessary to start the season.
And short of that, players such as Cardinals reliever Andrew Miller have said publicly, “We’re wasting our breath with everything else.”
Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle, whose wife has a pre-existing condition that makes her more vulnerable to potential effects of COVID-19, outlined many of the questions and concerns for players in a lengthy Twitter thread this week.
Several players are known to have their own underlying risk conditions, along with some managers, coaches and support staff.
Even with quarantine-like conditions and limited travel, what additional risks are presented through contact with hotel staff, airline crews, bus drivers and others allowed into and near the protective bubble?
So what is the equitable division of financial risk?
Consider, too, that team ownership is a long-term, exceptionally lucrative business proposition. The Cubs’ franchise value rose to more than $3 billion by last season since the Ricketts family’s $846 million purchase in 2009. Jerry Reinsdorf’s group bought the White Sox for $19 million in 1981, and Forbes estimated its value early this year at $1.65 billion.
Players, on the other hand, have short careers, with limited stretches within those careers to capitalize on arbitration and free-agent opportunities. And relatively few of those become established enough to leverage the system at all.
And, finally, this: MLB and the players struck an agreement in March over prorated salaries for a shortened 2020 season, and MLB is now suggesting an adjustment to terms based on projected losses because of the likelihood fans won’t be allowed in stadiums.
The union’s position is that the March deal accounted for all contingencies; the owners point to a disputed clause in a 20-page document suggesting additional negotiations for the possibility of lost attendance — which was the widely held public assumption at the time, based on statements from health experts and public officials.
If that clause is to be interpreted as the owners intend now, then why wasn’t it discussed with unimpeachable clarity, transparency and in as much detail as the prorated numbers, in March?
Look, baseball already had an image problem and popularity issue with anybody under 50 in this country, and nothing positive for the game’s image can come from a salary dispute during a pandemic that has killed more than 80,000 Americans and devastated whole sectors of the economy.
Given the climate of mistrust created in just the last few years, MLB’s best play for both short-term goodwill and long-term best outcomes might be to skip the revenue-sharing idea — which, in any case is a trust-me request considering MLB doesn’t open its books to the players.
Otherwise, Pritzker might want to save his “disappointment” for his fellow billionaires running baseball.Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.